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Last Updated: Saturday, 8 April 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Lost words of a German conscript
By Andrew Joynes
BBC News

Next week sees the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the first of the Nazi death camps to be reached by British and American troops at the end of World War II.

The Bergen-Belsen memorial wall
At least 50,000 people died in Bergen-Belsen before liberation
During the last few months, Andrew Joynes has been piecing together the story of one man who survived the camp and whose story is now being told at the new memorial centre at Belsen.

Although it was a spring day there were no birds singing in the trees as I walked along the path which leads to the Bergen-Belsen memorial wall.

In front of the wall is a stone pillar, and behind the pillar a series of mounds cover the sandy heathland.

Each of them has a tablet inscribed "1945", with a bunch of fresh flowers placed on it.

In these mounds lie the Belsen dead, their names unknown, their stories untold.

Swastika mail

I had come to Belsen on this spring day because last autumn my wife and I decided to clear out the attic.

The envelope of Anton Igel's letter dated March 11 1945, marked with a swastika
Prisoners were allowed to send very few letters from Belsen

Tucked away under the rafters was a box of papers, which had belonged to my wife's aunt, who died some years ago.

They dealt with her time in Germany at the end of the war, when she worked in a British Army office tracing displaced persons.

Among the photographs of ruined German cities there were two letters.

Both envelopes were marked with a Swastika, and both had the same postmark: "Bergen-Belsen".

The letters were in German, dated August 1944 and March 1945.

One of my colleagues at BBC World Service tried to translate them for me but the old-fashioned writing was difficult to decipher.

We could only make out the writer's name, Anton lgel, and the fact that he was a prisoner writing from Belsen's hut No 3 to his mother in Cologne asking for news of his family.

Paper trail

The text of Anton Igel's letter dated March 11 1945
I decided to take the letters back to the place where they were written

I got in touch with the German Embassy in London and, a few weeks ago, I heard from the director of the archives at Bergen-Belsen.

He not only recognised the name of the letter writer, who had come out of the camp alive in 1945, but had met Anton Igel on a number of occasions before the old man's death a decade or so ago.

This was, he explained, extremely unusual.

The problem for the archivists at Bergen-Belsen is the absence of precise records.

Most people who enquire about the fate of individual prisoners are told: "We're sorry. We simply don't know what happened to them..."

The director went on to say that he would like to include the letters in an exhibition planned for Belsen's new documentation centre when it opens next year.

So I decided to take the letters back to the place where they were written.

But I was not prepared for the story that I began to uncover.

The Igel file

In the archives there is an entire file on Anton Igel and in it, there is a memoir he wrote as an old man.

Its tone is at once both tragic and comic, like the novel Candide or The Good Soldier Schweik.

As a teenager, lgel was sent to a Nazi detention centre for delinquent youths.

In a sense the letters have been reclaimed by the extraordinary coincidences of their discovery in a suburban attic in the south of England

He was drafted into the German army, and then embarked on a series of desertions which took him to Gestapo cells across Europe.

On his final escapade he ran away from a unit on its way to the Russian front and went to ground in the Warsaw Ghetto.

He avoided being shot by feigning mental illness and was finally sent from hospital to a labour camp.

From there he was transported to Belsen in 1944.

He survived and in his old age became a campaigner for the moral principle that those who do not collaborate with a system of tyranny - those like himself, a serial deserter from the Wehrmacht - should be honoured.

It is a principle which is today as relevant as ever.

Permanent record

The file had photographs of him attending memorial celebrations in his striped camp uniform, carrying a banner embroidered with his prisoner number.

For most of the Belsen dead, there is no such means of telling a story

His two letters from Belsen were probably left at the British Army office where my wife's aunt worked when his family were trying to trace him at the end of the war.

They were never reclaimed.... until now that is, because in a sense the letters have been reclaimed by the extraordinary coincidences of their discovery in a suburban attic in the south of England.

The exhibition in which they will be displayed will deal with the fate of known individuals caught up in the inferno of Bergen-Belsen.

"Every human being should have their story told," the archive director said to me.

Silent messages

At about the time Anton Igel was writing his second letter, in March l945, one of his fellow-prisoners at Belsen, Anne Frank, was dying of typhus just a few hundred yards away from hut No 3.

Both he and she were able to tell something of their stories.

Hers came in a diary, kept before she entered the camps and cut short while she was still young.

His came in a memoir written in old age.

For most of the Belsen dead, there is no such means of telling a story.

Tens of thousands lie buried in the mass graves beside the pillar which points at the sky in commemoration and reproach.

Their message is in their silence.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 April, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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